Have you ever heard of anyone say “this airplane food tastes so good”? Chances are, you probably haven’t and you are not alone. According to a study by Lorenz, your “basic taste sensitivity decreases with increasing altitude”. So it’s not necessarily the airline’s fault that they have bad food but it might be because your taste buds and the sense of smell become less sensitive when you are flying 30,000 ft in the air.
How does this happen?
We can taste six different flavours, such as sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami (savoury) using taste buds located in our mouth. There are a few factors that influence how the taste buds perceive the taste of food:
- Air pressure
- Sense of smell
Once you are on an airplane, all these factors change which affects your ability to taste food.
The airplane cabin drops humidity level to about 12 %, drier than most deserts. Even inside the pressurized cabin, it is equivalent to standing on top of a 2500 m mountain and the fluctuations of height decrease the pressure inside the cabin, compared to when you are standing on the ground. A combination of low humidity and low pressure leads to xerostomia where your mouth is dry from reduced saliva flow. This lowers your taste buds’ sensitivity by about 30 % and consequently, your food taste plain. Your nose plays an important role in tasting food as the smell can be a huge component of flavour. Low humidity levels dry your nose leading to a decrease in your ability to sniff odours. In addition, the constant sound of the engines, often over 85 dB, can impact a nerve called the chonda tympani that runs from your taste buds to the middle of your ear. As a result, the sensitivity of your taste buds decreases as a response to the nerve’s responsiveness to sound.
Airplane food tips and tricks
It turns out that the change of the environment does not affect all flavours. “Interestingly, this was specific to sweet and umami tastes, with sweet taste inhibited and umami taste significantly enhanced” said Robin Dando, assistant professor of food science at Cornell University. With this in mind, here are some tips and tricks to elevate airplane food to new heights.
- Try having an umami-rich menu like tomatoes, mushrooms and spinach
- Use noise-cancelling headphones to block noises
- Eat or drink early in the flight before the humidity drops even more
Food for thought
Technology has advanced in the field of food sciences to modify pre-existing food to add more value, like Grāpple, an apple that tastes like grapes. It is worth investigating how airplane food can be enhanced to “taste better” when we lose our sense of taste.
Written by: Suyoung Ahn
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